Writing Online: For Rhetoricians and Coders Alike

Introduction

As I mentioned in Saturday’s post on You Are Not a Gadget, one of my coworkers teaches a course called Writing for the Digital Age. I took the first section of the class and loved it. It’s still going strong these few years later, and when John saw me reading You Are Not a Gadget, he asked if I’d be willing to look through a text he was thinking about using for the upcoming section of the course this fall.

Of course I said yes.

Overall Thoughts and Impressions

Writing Online: Rhetoric for the Digital Age, despite its professor-bait title, is an easily accessible read. Pullman’s intentions are clear and he communicates information in a palatable way. The book is structured to be skimmed and used as a manual — that is, when needed — and Pullman himself actively encourages his audience not to read, but to “plunder and run.”

I liked the user-manual feel of the book, and would have especially found it handy if following along with the projects outlined throughout. Pullman is a believer in learning by doing, so rather than simply explain the rhetoric of digital creation (coding), he has his audience try their hands at it themselves. Since I was reading a borrowed copy of the book and wanted to get my thoughts back to John quickly, I didn’t follow along with his projects, but I’m seriously considering buying my own copy so I can do just that.

Reading the book cover-to-cover, despite the author’s encouragement not to, reveals some flaws. While the first half or so held my attention beautifully (I took a book on coding to bed as fun reading. Granted, I don’t know if that says more about the quality of the book or the weirdness of my brain), the second half fell flat. Where the beginning focuses on the broad strokes of digital rhetoric, lays out some theory, and gets the reader thinking about the broad implications of digital rhetoric’s best practices, the latter half hones in on the hands-on projects. Since I wasn’t doing the projects, I wasn’t interested in the minutiae that Pullman started getting into. Maybe I’ll find it more valuable the second time around.

Key Takeaways

Despite the slow fade of Writing Online as a whole, there is enough information in the beginning chapters to more than warrant grabbing the book. Pullman discusses a lot of concepts, and many of them got me thinking much more deeply about my own relationship to digital rhetoric.

First, and most importantly, Pullman emphasizes creating value, not just content. I’m guilty of this right here on the The Chronic Hobbyist. I’ll run up close to my self-imposed deadline, then just slap up a review that’s actually a summary, rather than taking the time to create a review that’s actually worth reading. Now, I’ve got “create value, not just content” as a little mantra in my head, which I hope is helping me grow as a digital writer.

Writing Online covers much of the same ground as You Are Not a Gadget when referring to user experience, especially when speaking of how interface determines understanding. Our tools define how we work, and how information is displayed affects how we think about it. Keep that in mind when exploring digital spaces and challenge the restrictions you may not have been aware of. In a similar vein, it’s important to remember that “data isn’t the same thing as the visualization of that data.”

Another rule of thumb that I am guilty of breaking is “don’t use your computer as a typewriter.” It’s so tempting to just think of a computer as a fancy word processor, but it’s so much more. Digital content is endlessly recyclable and powerful in ways that traditional content simply can’t measure up to. One of the areas where this power really shines through is in databases. I keep a personal wiki with all the notes I take on various texts I come across, and I love perusing that knowledge base to create connections I may not have initially been aware of. My heart warmed when I saw that Pullman is a database fan himself. He summed up the idea behind this database creation much better than I ever could: “How can I gather data in such a way that I’ll be able to use it to answer questions that haven’t even occurred to me yet?

pullman_writingonline_webcover

Summary

If you’re interested in rhetoric and how it is used in digital spaces, pick up a copy of Writing Online. Doubly so if you’re also interested in learning some basic coding and the methodologies used in the coding world. And if you already know some basic coding, there are slightly more advanced projects for you, too.

All in all, Writing Online is a great resource that I would encourage everyone to take a look at.

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